Acknowledging you have an eating disorder is hard. Even if you know the facts. So then how do you overcome an eating disorder when you are not even sure you have one?
Complicating this process is that a person with an eating disorder rarely recognizes the dangerousness of the symptoms.
Head’s up: Denial is common. Expected even.
Even or especially when you know the facts.
An example of denial is “that (fill-in-serious -medical-consequence, such as a heart attack) won’t happen to me. Maybe to other people, but not to me.”
Recovery is difficult, uncomfortable, and at times painful.
However, recovery is 100% possible. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. And, I have never heard of anyone who regrets recovery.
For sure, how to overcome an eating disorder when you are not even sure you have one is no easy task.
There is no script, set of instructions, or do-it-yourself manual. Self-help is rarely enough for overcoming an eating disorder.
Part of you at times may not want to say goodbye to the disorder. That is normal. After all, the eating disorder has played a role in helping you to cope with feelings, relationships, and events in your life.
If eating disorder behavior were not helpful, you would not have an eating disorder.
On a basic biological level, you know you need food to survive. And that your eating disordered relationship with food is neither natural nor friendly.
Even though it might make you feel virtuous, special, or safe.
Food is not for nourishment for a person with an eating disorder. Instead, it’s something to restrict, binge. or binge/purge. The relationship with food is used as a way to communicate feelings.
Food becomes the enemy. You versus Food. Sometimes it is also a best friend.
To overcome an eating disorder, your relationship with so many things has to change, not just your relationship with food.
For example, a common tendency in the relationship with food is to categorize food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Doing so is problematic and adds momentum to an already adversarial relationship with food. Another reason it’s problematic is the implication that if you eat “bad” food, you are “bad”, and if you eat “good” (or no) food, you are “good”.
(Unfortunately, our culture regards food in an all-or-none kind of way based on nutrition content. And, in Diet Culture, worth as a human being is based on food choices and body size/weight. Someone with an eating disorder has taken what is considered normal in Diet Culture to an extreme.)
The truth is that food has no moral quality. Actually, the only ‘bad’ food is food that has spoiled!
All food is just food.
Diet Culture infuses morality with food, as if an apple is ‘good’ and brownies are ‘bad’. Are rotten apples with a worm “good”? Are fudgey, warm brownies ‘bad’? Nope.
“Rotten”, “wormy”, “fudgey”, and “warm” are descriptions, not value judgements. “Good” and “bad” are value judgments. As if you are a “good” or “bad” human being depending on your food choices. Hardly!
Social media and other sources promote the belief that food, weight, and morality are linked. They are not.
Diet Culture is sneaky and wants you to be at its mercy so it can sell you stuff.
Overcoming an eating disorder is hard enough, especially because you don’t live in a vacuum. Triggering messages are everywhere. Some are obvious, and some are more subtle.
Any discussion of overcoming an eating disorder must at least reference Diet Culture. Why? Because it is the air you and most other people you know (and those you don’t) breathe. I like to say fish don’t know they’re wet.
Overcoming an eating disorder with Diet Culture as backdrop everywhere is extra challenging.
(Beware of Diet Culture in disguise, co-opted as “Healthy Lifestyle”, “Clean Eating”, or otherwise packaged as health.)
There are concrete ways to overcome an eating disorder, though, even if you are not sure you have one.
Or even if you are not totally sure that you want to overcome the disorder.
The specifics of treatment vary, depending on the nature of your symptoms and which eating disorder diagnosis you have.
Here are 11 general tips:
Create a treatment team.An example of a treatment team is: An eating disorder specialized psychologist, anti diet registered dietician, and eating disorder informed primary care physician. Maybe a family therapist too.
You are the center of the treatment team. The other experts are there to support, guide, and make recommendations.
They are on your side. The goal for everyone on the team is to help you take steps toward well-being.
Be patient with yourself.Overcoming an eating disorder does not occur overnight. Progress takes time. And the trajectory is not linear. It is more of a squiggle.
You are not a problem that needs to be solved.Eating disorders do not occur in a vacuum. There are socio-cultural, biological, metabolic, historical, and political forces at play. For true change to occur, Diet Culture has to be eradicated.
But You and only You are the only one who can ‘do’ your recovery. You have support (remember the first tip?) but YOU do the work.
Recovery is unlikely if other people work harder than you in your recovery.
Discover new ways to cope.Find other methods of managing feelings so there is less need (or no need at all) to rely on the eating disorder.
One of the ways an eating disorder serves as a coping method is by numbing your feelings.
Learn strategies to tolerate and express feelings. There are therapies designed for exactly that purpose. Dialectical Behavior Therapy is an example. Two of the four areas of focus are emotion regulation and distress tolerance.
A mnemonic that can be helpful in this pursuit is “NCFA”, or Name your feeling, Claim your feeling, Frame your feeling, and Aim your feeling.
In other words, learn the name of your emotions, validate your feeling, understand why you are feeling the emotion, and then do something with the feeling to express it in a way that is more aligned with well being.
5. Find your tribe.
Connect with people who are further along in overcoming an eating disorder than you are. Be sure your relationship is not based on exchanging eating disorder tips! Follow Instagram accounts of inspiration for recovery. (Instagram can also be problematic, so curate carefully! See Tip #6!)
Another idea is to connect with an online recovery group, some of which are low cost or no cost.
6. Curate social media.
7. Learn and practice self-compassion.
Be on your own side, and try to support yourself as you would a dear friend or other loved one. Or your puppy!
Self-compassion is not laziness, self indulgence, pity party time, or woe is me.
It is the opposite. In fact, hundreds of peer reviewed research has been conducted demonstrating the benefits of self compassion.
Here are a bunch of self-compassion practices to try. Check them out! A formal self compassion practice is a great investment of time – it can take just 5 minutes.
Practicing self-compassion strengthens resilience.
8. Explore ways to express yourself.
So many other ways than through eating disorder symptoms are available for expression. Get creative and honor who you are.
Learn to play an instrument! Find a hobby! Learn a foreign language!
Random ideas include playing the ukulele, creating inspirational quotes for tee shirts, or learning Japanese.
9. Learn about Health At EverySize (HAES) and Intuitive Eating (IE) approaches.
10. Practice new ways of thinking.
Notice when you hear yourself say/think mean things to and about yourself. If you would not speak that way to a friend, do not speak that way to or about yourself.
A form of therapy called Cognitive Behavior Therapy emphasizes identifying dysfunctional ways of thinking and teaches you how to reframe negative thoughts into accurate, neutral thinking.
11. Keep your values in mind.
Mind-body-spirit well-being is most likely to occur when what we think, believe, say, and do are aligned. Eating disorder behaviors such as lying, avoiding, and hurting yourself are probably not congruent with your values. How do you reconcile this disconnect? One way is to identify your values, and work toward aligning them with the way you live your life. (The link is to a national survey. If you complete it, a copy of your results will be sent to you.)
The line between eating disorder behavior and what is culturally normal eating behavior is becoming harder to pinpoint.
This in and of itself is a problem and makes it harder to figure out how to overcome an eating disorder, especially when you are not even sure you have one.
Even for people who do not have an eating disorder, dieting is not a natural, helpful for weight, or attuned way to eat.
The only way the blurred line will become clear is by recognizing Diet Culture for what it is and intentionally turning your attention inward to your body’s signals. HAES and IE will support your efforts.
Sometimes you might wonder if treatment and recovery are better than life with the eating disorder. At times you might even miss the eating disorder.
This is all normal, rather than a sign that you’re not meant to recover.
If you get only one thing from this article, let it be this message, loud and clear:
Overcoming an eating disorder is absolutely possible.
In the words of Sarah Silverman, ”Mother Teresa didn’t walk around complaining about the size of her thighs. She had shit to do!”
And so do you.
You and I know you can access more meaning in life than a number on the scale could ever provide.
I am Dr. Elayne Daniels, a Yale-trained clinical psychologist whose book smarts are augmented with firsthand experience. If you wonder if you have an eating disorder, or are concerned about a loved one, please reach out to me with any questions.